Coronavirus: NZ could move to alert level 1 next week says Jacinda Ardern

The AM Show 02/06/2020

Black Lives Matter protests in New Zealand on Monday breached COVID-19 rules, the Prime Minister says.

With New Zealand not recording a single case of COVID-19 in more than a week and just one known active case left, politicians and industry leaders have been calling for the country to transition to alert level 1.

Pressure has mounted over the last 24 hours after a lack of social distancing at Black Lives Matters protests on Monday. Currently, alert level 2 rules restrict gatherings to a maximum of 100 people, but more than 2000 are believed to have been at an Auckland protest.

Jacinda Ardern told The AM Show "if you want me to express a view on whether or not it was a breach of the rules, clearly it was".

The Prime Minister said rules were "there for a reason".

"This was a breach of the rules, no matter how we personally feel about the issue and the strength of feeling, which I absolutely understand. At the moment, though, we are asking people to hold off just for a little while longer until we have that extra security and we know it is safe to [have] people gathering in that way."

She said police's actions on Monday were "operational decisions" but consistent with the educate-first approach applied by cops throughout the pandemic.

"They never move straight to enforcement," Ardern said.

She said it wasn't for the Government to instruct police on how to enforce.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said on Monday that protesters in Auckland showed "our team of five million are being let down by a small group who think they know better than everyone else". 

"If the authorities allow this to occur then we should be at level 1 tomorrow."

Ardern told The AM Show on Tuesday that a move would be considered on Monday next week and indicated that the move could happen sometime next week.

The Prime Minister previously said Cabinet would "check in again on our settings" on June 8 and that by no later than June 22 it would "consider the move to alert level 1".

She said it hadn't been brought forward due to the protests.

"Not because of the protests. In the same way that we didn't change the lockdown rules because we saw people flout them. Not at all. The decisions we are making have to be based on making sure we are locking in all of those gains, that we are confident that we are in the best position possible."

Ardern said New Zealand was exceeding expectations.

"On that basis, we have been in touch with the Director-General over the weekend to canvas with him bringing forward the consideration of alert level 1."

According to the COVID-19 website, alert level 1 signals that the respiratory illness is "contained in New Zealand". Unlike alert level 2, there are no restrictions on gatherings.

Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles said she was "absolutely gutted" to see people protesting "without taking COVID precautions". 

"If you went today, please, please, please self isolate for the next 14 days. The last thing any of us want is to see a surge in cases," she said.

Ardern told The AM Show said she would be getting the Director-General of Health's opinion on advice, but "we do need to keep up our testing regime, so if anyone wishes to get one, then by all means, because we need to keep up that testing to check any potential asymptomatic transmission".

The protest organisers have created an online contact tracing form for people who went to any of New Zealand's marches in case there is an outbreak. Many at the demonstrations were wearing masks, however, experts have said masks are most effective in stopping someone spreading the virus if they have it themselves. 

The protests were sparked in the United States last week by the death of African-American man George Floyd. He died after having a police officer kneel on his neck for nearly ten minutes. 

Ardern condemned Floyd's killing.

"I think the whole world does. Of course, of course. You read the story, it is just horrifying. Coming back to where I have a role, here in New Zealand, no one would argue that we are a picture of perfection in New Zealand. We are not.

"Something that I believe is one of our strengths is our ability to openly discuss where we are in terms of our fight against racism and intolerance, issues of unconscious bias. We do openly discuss and debate those issues and we do openly seek to change them."